Sunday it begins in Detroit. Adrian Peterson’s sky’s-the-limit campaign to reach yardage figures that could take him to the moon and, along with him, his adoring national public.
But a more critical story for the Minnesota Vikings in their opening game of the 2013 National Football League season centers on the third-year quest for dependability of Christian Ponder, the quarterback who shook off the tremors of mediocrity in the closing month of the 2012 season to help boost the Vikings into the playoffs.
But the National Football League today is the quarterbacking domain of the rollicking Young Turks of professional football — Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco, Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, Russell Wilson of Seattle and the more stationary Andrew Luck of Indianapolis. It is the province of veteran incumbents like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Eli Manning, and slightly less exalted but capable practitioners like Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler and the Vikings’ quarterbacking opponent Sunday, Matthew Stafford of the Lions.
Right now, beginning his third season, Ponder does not rank with any in that number, and we haven’t even mentioned Matt Schaub in Houston, one of the better teams in the National Football League.
It is also a league of the new college-bred hurry-up offense and the so-called zone read options that give multi-skilled quarterbacks an invitation to the keep defenses wheezing.
The question that 2013 should resolve for the Viking crowds and paymaster is: Does Christian Ponder belong somewhere in that skilled and contending crowd of big league quarterbacks?
What we know is that his arm is adequate without being terrifying. He has a quick mind that also translates into football smarts and he is genuinely popular with the team without trying to promote himself. There is no question about his nerve. He will run for yardage when it’s his best or only choice. No, he’s not Kaepernick running with the ball, but who is? When Ponder runs he does it with full commitment and he will often save a series by pulling the ball down and legging it.
None of that has brought him full acceptance by the critics or, in fact, by his coaches.
So beside this being the start of Adrian Peterson’s other-worldly pursuit of a historic 2,500 yards and the pivotal year for the Vikings’ young quarterback, are there any provocative storylines hovering over this new season for the Vikings?
More than a few. Despite fresh breaths of optimism voiced by the sports facility’s spokesperson just three months ahead of groundbreaking for the nearly billion-dollar, state-of-the-art Viking stadium, there are still hovering questions concerning its financing: not only about how the state of Minnesota will fulfill its pledged share of the payment, but lingering litigation in New Jersey questioning business practices of the Wilf ownership.
The season begins in the aftermath of the National Football League’s award of more than $700 million in damages to hundreds of former players who sued the league as victims of concussions suffered during their years in the league. It also begins in the face of added riches going to U.S. colleges in televised football revenue, leading some critics to suggest there may be a limit to how much football the American public can support.
The answer is: There is no foreseeable limit. Despite the shaky economy, the American sporting public shows no suggestion of a flagging love affair within televised football. TV pumps billions of dollars of revenue into the system, including the networks that legally partner with the colleges. All of this keeps the phenomenon rolling — defying recessions, war threats, elections, gas prices, global warming and the passions for tweeting
Into this maelstrom of money billowing everywhere in football, the Vikings begin another season with fair to uncertain prospects. The team should be an improvement over the one that was almost buried three-fourths of the way through the season last year but recovered splendidly and won its final four games of the regular season. That included a season finale upset of the Green Bay Packers. It put them into the playoffs and vindicated Leslie Frazier as a coach who could deliver. It may be significant that they beat the Packers with Ponder playing, and lost to them in the first round of the playoffs with Ponder unavailable because of an injury.
So, did the Vikings’ draft in April, a couple player transactions and the maturing of some of the younger players lift the team into the ranks of legitimate playoff contenders this season?
The first answers will come Sunday. Peterson remains the heart of the Viking offense. None of his teammates are worried about his unabashed goals of breaking all of the rushing records in sight. Nor is the Viking staff, nor, obviously, the fans. Ponder’s struggles a year ago could be attributed in part to an embarrassing lack of a deep-passing game, some of it Ponder’s fault but largely the result of a basic mediocrity among the receivers once Percy Harvin called it a season. Among the Viking player moves in the off season were two critical ones: the drafting Cordarrelle Patterson — tall and swift, a kick runback threat as well as a deep receiver — and the acquisition from Green Bay of Greg Jennings, for years a favorite target of Aaron Rodgers.
Jennings arrived in the Vikings camp with strong hands, nimble feet and a big mouth. His first couple of days in camp were devoted to attacking Aaron Rodgers as a me-first quarterback at Green Bay. It took Leslie Frazier one day to change Jenkins’ subject matter as a public speaker.
Are the Vikings better than a year ago? Probably. They’ve lost Peterson’s lead blocker, Jerome Felton, temporarily under suspension, a player good enough at his specialty to have made the Pro Bowl. His interim replacement will be either Rhett Ellison, drafted two years ago as a tight end or running back; Zach Line, a storybook survivor of the last week of cuts who has become a saga on the Internet; or John Carlson, the Vikings No. 2 tight end alongside Kyle Rudolph.
There are holdover stars, including the pass-rushing stalker, Jared Allen; linebacker Chad Greenway; free safety Harrison Smith; defensive end Brian Robison; and on the offense, center John Sullivan, tight end Kyle Rudolph and tackle Phil Loadholt. Matt Kalil remains a developing star at offensive tackle and the defensive backs, except for Smith, are limited but probably an improvement over 2012. Blair Walsh will again win some games by kicking field goals from anywhere close to 60 yards out. But the socially conscious Chris Kluwe has been replaced as the Viking punter by Jeff Locke, which may or may not improve the Viking punting game but will probably disappoint some of Kluwe’s fans in the field of social agitation.
Be prepared, Viking loyalists, for, well, almost anything. But don’t take your eyes off Peterson. You can be sure that nobody on the opposing defense will.
Which may be the opening young Ponder needs.